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Jakarta Post

Naypyidaw: A mirror for Indonesia's new capital

Hong Kong   /   Sat, May 18, 2019   /   12:55 pm
Naypyidaw: A mirror for Indonesia's new capital A Myanmarese man and woman work in a brick factory in Naypyidaw on Dec. 5. (AFP/Thet Aung)

Moving a capital city is no easy feat - one would only need to look at the stories of Brasilia, Islamabad and the likes to see the level of sophistication needed in planning.

Numerous presidents, from Sukarno to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo nearing the end of his first term have considered the prospects of a new capital. Yet there has not been a concrete plan or site for Indonesia’s new government headquarters.

Indonesia is far from the first in Southeast Asia to move its capital. The Myanmar government relocated from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2005, following Malaysia’s earlier move to Putrajaya from Kuala Lumpur. As such, Naypyidaw serves as a recent and near case study that Jakarta’s successor could refer to.

There were many factors that may have contributed to such a move: Naypyidaw was a transport hub, its central location could allow better oversight over conflict regions; Yangon was vulnerable to typhoons; and The Guardian daily went as far as calling this as a vanity project. 

The official explanation from the government cited congestion and overcrowding, analogous to Jakarta’s current situation.

It is also speculated that this relocation project had to do with the backdrop of Saddam Hussein’s downfall in Iraq. Myanmar under the military junta was facing sanctions from the West. They eventually forgone their turn for ASEAN Chairmanship as Europe and the United States threatened to boycott ASEAN events if Myanmar were to become chair. Perhaps it was due to this pressure from Western powers, that the Myanmarese regime wanted to move inland where it would be harder for any foreign powers to come and topple the government, as compared to coastal Yangon.

Regardless, what resulted from this relocation project would be a viable case of reference for Indonesia.

It is worth noting that there is a distinction between setting this capital on a planned city or a preexisting one, depending on the level of development and existing infrastructure.

A planned city per se is not necessarily a problem, yet it does require a lot of work, pouring in capital and careful town planning. A new city might mean having to build up infrastructure from scratch, yet it also allows for vast opportunities - like a brand new blank canvas for one to draw on.

Most relocated capital cities are planned cities - Naypyidaw is one of them, and characterized by many as one of the less successful examples. With a total area almost 7 times of Singapore, Naypyidaw boasts 20-lane highways, spectacular pagodas and four golf courses - yet its population is less than one-fifth of Singapore.

Transportation infrastructure, malls, restaurants and other facilities are in place, yet Naypyidaw seem to have a problem in attracting residents.

Legislators have taken the plane from Yangon to attend the Assembly of the Union meetings, stay overnight and fly back. The same for foreign aid workers, who would rather do multiple commutes a week than settling down in Naypyidaw. It is as if the country has put in large investments to make people move, yet everyone would rather stay in Yangon and do long commutes to the “ghost city”.

The lack of influx in population further exacerbated the issue - the lack of businesses, hotels and other facilities further undermine the desirability of moving into Naypyidaw.

In Indonesia’s case, the government will likely choose a city that already has some basic infrastructure in place, yet with ample space for further development and expansion.

Jakarta’s primacy is not going to be compromised - as Southeast Asia’s biggest megalopolis, it will remain the central hub of business and commerce. It is likely that Naypyidaw’s situation would occur in Indonesia - unless the new capital is able to expand its involvement to beyond the realm of government.

The new capital must be able to provide its inhabitants with living standards just as high as, if not higher than Jakarta. The airport should at least be able to serve all parts of the country, if not providing access to international destinations as well. The city itself must also be attractive to new residents, with basic amenities including educational institutions and leisure venues provided.

Like Washington DC and Canberra, the new capital can become a hub of research and knowledge, allowing for rigorous policy discourse and the training of future bureaucrats.

To further build up the city’s internationalism, the new capital can be the venue of sports events like the SEA Games, or host international conventions such as ASEAN or APEC.

Should the new capital be situated in Kalimantan, this could be an opportunity to develop the surrounding areas altogether, enhancing the region’s connectivity. With Brunei, Sarawak and Sabah on the same island, Indonesia can work with the two neighboring countries for development projects, building up tourism capacity for the island.

This of course, is a long shot, but if completed could benefit the Island as a whole, allowing Kalimantan to tap into the flock of tourists visiting Brunei and East Malaysia.

At this point of time, a move seems inevitable and it is unlikely that Jakarta will remain as the capital - challenges await a post-capital Jakarta and its successor.

Jakarta now suffers from the consequences of poor urban planning in the previous decades, and still has to rectify it. Turning over a new leaf, it is up to the new capital’s bureaucracy to learn from Jakarta’s mistakes and make this the last time Indonesia has to relocate its capital.

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The writer is a former Jakartan, sophomore and research assistant on Southeast Asian politics at the University of Hong Kong.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.